Biggest Dam Removal in European History Has Begun With the Vezins Dam

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©. Roberto Epple / ERN

Removal of the 118-foot-high dam in France will free the Sélune River, bringing wildlife back to the waterway and the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Wild rivers are wildly important, so to speak; and as it stands now, just one-third of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing.

With river fragmentation and flow regulation as the leading contributors to this loss of river connectivity, everything goes haywire. For much of this we can thank dams; one of the biggest threats to river ecosystems. As WWF explains, “they stop the natural flow of sediments downstream and affect migratory fishes from travelling up- or downstream to complete their lifecycles. These impediments often lead to the decrease or decimation of native fish populations and can harbor other, non-native species in their adjacent impoundments.”

Which is why it’s such big news that France has begun removing the Vezins and La Roche Qui Boit hydroelectric dams. At 118-foot-high, the removal of the Vezins will mark the largest dam removal in Europe to date.

dam removal

© Preparing to make the first hole. Roberto Epple / ERN

“We congratulate France for proceeding with the biggest dam removal in Europe to date, and with that bring hope for migratory fish species, such as salmon, eel and sturgeon," said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office.

The removal of the dams will open up some 55 miles of the Selune river, allowing her to flow again. And with that will come improved water quality, the return of migratory salmon to their ancient spawning grounds, and multiple benefits to people and nature along the river.

The two dams have been in operation since the 1920s and 1930s – yet their glory days are long gone. As Dam Removal Europe explains, their “reservoirs are filled with sediment, generate low profits and, in the summer, host toxic cyanobacteria.”

And their removals are just two of many. More than 3,500 barriers have been removed across European rivers, and citizens are donating funds to see these barriers go as a part of a larger dam removal crowdfunding campaign, according to WWF.

Not only will the removal of the two dams enable the Sélune to return to its natural ecosystem, but it will also help to fuel the famous – a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Europe’s prime tourist attractions.

Bay of Mont-St.-Michel and Tombelaine. Uwe Küchler/CC BY 3.0

/CC BY 3.0

“The removal of the Vezins dam signals a revolution in Europe’s attitude to its rivers: instead of building new dams, countries are rebuilding healthy rivers and bringing back biodiversity,” said Roberto Epple, founder and president of European Rivers Network (ERN). “Nature can recover remarkably quickly when dams are removed and I look forward to watching salmon swimming past Mont St Michel and spawning in the headwaters of the Selune for the first time since my grandparents were young.”

See more at WWF and ERN.

And for an interesting listen on balancing the need for renewable power vis-a-vis hydroelectric dams versus the return of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, this BBC program, Demolishing Dams, offers some good perspectives.